1968Director: Lindsay Anderson
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, David Wood, Richard Warwick
ometimes misidentified as agitprop or pigeonholed as prophecy, if.... dates far less egregiously than other “youth in revolt” movies of the late ’60s because it’s nearly as much of no specific time in its themes (and dialogue) as it is of an experimental period in commercial narrative cinema. Financed by Paramount Pictures and then nearly shelved when they saw its concluding machine-gun catharsis, it drew poison-pen salvos to its self-styled “anarchist” director Lindsay Anderson (This Sporting Life) and made an instant star of pouty young Malcolm McDowell, nervily simmering in the role of Mick Travis, a dissident senior student at a posh English public school (“private” to we Yanks). Restructuring and rewriting if.... with original scenarist David Sherwin, Anderson’s instincts led him away from the kitchen-sink grittiness then trendy in British film and theatre toward “something much bigger than naturalism,” a Brecht-influenced epic metaphor for the authoritarian cudgels of empire and class.
Making his entrance for the new term with a black hat and pulled-up scarf (hiding a verboten mustache), Mick obsessively listens not to pop, but Congolese children singing a Latin Mass (even on a café jukebox). He earnestly affixes photos of revolutionaries to his dorm wall, flounces theatrically into bed at lights-out, collapses in giggles when gin-fueled bull sessions with his mates Johnny (David Wood) and Wallace (Richard Warwick) turn goofy, and occasionally makes Maoist pronouncements about the purity of violence. Mick and his fellow “crusaders” aren’t doted on in the early reels, as the social hierarchy at College House is introduced: The privileged senior leaders, known as whips, led by the officious Rowntree (Robert Swann), browbeat their younger fellows with petty inspections and cold-shower sadism while paying lofty tribute to Britain and Christendom in assemblies, and in their rooms argue and cluck lustfully over the young “scum” who serve as their personal servants. As the priggish whip Denson, Hugh Thomas neatly projects self-disgust—calling Mick “a degenerate” seems a self-defense of raw desperation.
Anderson’s classical shooting style employs lots of medium-long and long shots—a sort of spatial neutrality grown from his documentarian roots—until he stirs the viewer by brazenly violating it. When Mick and Johnny go on the inevitable lark into town and pinch a motorbike from a showroom, they’re seen from across the street in telephoto, or in liberating traveling shots on the road. But when they stop for coffee and Mick seduces the girl (Christine Noonan) who waits on them, the film shifts to monochrome (as it frequently does for intuitive rather than symbolic reasons), and after snarling and clawing like tigers, a cut finds the coupling youths nude and roaring on the floor. Not Richard Lester’s style, but playful.
Similarly, the film’s most absurd gag involves the chaplain and a giant bureau drawer, but dropped into a scene of reprimand by the headmaster, it points up his scarcely less ludicrous pedantry (twittering that youthful individualism is “a quite blameless form of existentialism”). And there’s a lyrical interlude of Wallace grinning at a cherubic underclassman in the gymnasium, then performing a gymnastic routine as an unmistakable love offering to the entranced youth. Anderson, who was gay but may have been a lifelong celibate, also shows Wallace stroking his own chest drunkenly in Mick’s room, and the prefect’s wife surreally wandering nude through the student sleeping quarters. (As McDowell states on the Criterion DVD commentary regarding the aura of repression that envelops if...., “This is not a film that could’ve been made by an openly gay man.”)
More idiosyncratic moments belong to minor figures at the fringes of the Whips-Crusaders conflict, as with the eccentric history master (Graham Crowden) who comes bicycling into class, tosses graded essays to the seniors (“Good…Making an effort at last…Awful”) and then questions if the framing of history as a roll call of villainous dictators could be displaced by chronicling “whole populations of evil people like ourselves…Do you have a view?” It’s the only scene centered on Crowden in the film—he’s otherwise glimpsed looking bored out of his forbidding skull at chapel services—but its airiness (he throws open the classroom windows after pedaling in) and the portrait of an adult who provokes and challenges the students gives the school an extra dimension than if all the authority figures had been clowns, quislings or boy-touchers. Similarly, the fussed-over scum Philips (Rupert Webster) seems stoically unknowable until, in a scene smoking in a shed with Wallace, he lucidly lays out his career plans and his indifference to his mother’s marital status.
From some accidental bloodshed in a fencing spree til Rowntree ritually beats the Crusaders in a pivotal scene for their “deplorable lack of spirit,” the potential for carnage seeps into if...., but Anderson avoids turning it into a tract, as Mick idly levels his air-pistol at photos of both Queen Elizabeth and Audrey Hepburn. As per the intended supranaturalism, when the gunfire blazes, it feels both organic and fantastic, with the smarmy headmaster howling “Boys! I understand you!” before being silenced. Unlike its remarkable follow-up O Lucky Man!, if.... occasionally feels portentous, as when the renegades discover a pickled baby along with munitions in a basement, or narrow—The Girl who joins the ranks is simply that. But if its last scene anticipated scenes of spring 1968 unrest by mere weeks, its poetics of insurrection still resonate with any armchair anarchists who’ve even fleetingly wished death to their oppressors.
if…. is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection.
By: Bill Weber
Published on: 2007-09-04